Ray Domanico joins City Journal associate editor Seth Barron to discuss New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza’s controversial and divisive leadership of the nation’s largest public school system. Domanico details Carranza’s emphasis on ridding schools of purported racial bias in his recent essay for City Journal, “Richard Carranza’s Deflections.”
Over the past four decades, with varying levels of success, Carranza’s predecessors in the chancellor’s job have launched numerous policies and programs aimed at better serving students. By contrast, Carranza has put forth no substantive plan for improving the schools, instead charging that the system is overrun by racial prejudice.
“This appeal to racial resentment is cynical and misguided,” writes Domanico. Carranza seems to believe that reforming New York’s public schools will require intensive racial-bias training and large budget increases. Instead, the chancellor and his team need to focus on the hard work of improving the schools academically.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. New York City Public Schools is the largest school system in the country. The district teaches more than 1 million students at nearly 2 thousand separate schools throughout the city. Public schools in New York have improved since reforms under Mayor Bloomberg in the early 2000s. But over the last year or so, all of the news surrounding the schools is about Mayor de Blasio’s pick for chancellor, Richard Carranza. Since he was appointed to the job in March of last year, Mr. Carranza has transformed the city’s department of education into a model for social justice advocacy. He speaks openly about racial issues, he’s ordered employees to undergo racial-sensitivity training, and he’s a vocal opponent of the specialized high school admissions test for the city’s elite schools, saying that they’re racist. Carranza’s rhetoric consistently makes front page news in the city’s tabloids, and nine members of the city council signed a letter last month to condemn his leadership. To talk about what’s going on with the controversies in New York’s public schools, our associate editor Seth Barron will talk with Ray Domanico. Ray is the director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute, and has a lot of experience in city schools. That’s it from me. The conversation between Seth Barron and Ray Domanico begins after this.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is Seth Barron, associate editor for City Journal. Richard Carranza has been running New York City's schools for the last 15 months and he's certainly generated a lot of heat but, some would argue, not too much light. Ray Domanico is the director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute. Ray joins me now to talk about the leadership of the city's schools. So Ray, your latest piece for City Journal is called Richard Carranza's Deflections. What do you mean by this?
Ray Domanico: What I mean by this is that we've had a long period of various efforts through many chancellors to improve the school system, particularly for low income children of color. A lot of that has paid off; there's an awful lot that's been going on in terms of improvement in the school system. But into this mix Chancellor Carranza steps and he tells us that there's this problem of inherent bias in the school system. What's lacking from his discussion is any tangible program to make improvements to the school system.
Seth Barron: Well, do you disagree with the principle that implicit racial bias on the part of school faculty is holding back minority youth?
Ray Domanico: In a system as large as New York City's, with over one million students and close to 100,000 employees, I'm sure there are individualized cases of bias, but that needs to be dealt with specifically; it's not a citywide problem, I believe, that needs to be addressed. And pursuing this approach in which he has claimed this is rampant throughout the school system, in which now all employees must go through anti-bias training, it seems to me to be a bit of a slap to all of the people who've proceeded him in the chancellor's office in the last 30 years or so, close to two thirds of whom were minorities themselves. These are the people who appointed a lot of the folks in the school system that hired him. Mayor de Blasio has been in for five years now; a lot of people were appointed under his watch, and yet Chancellor Carranza tells us that there is this rampant bias and it has to be dealt with. I don't think that is true. I think there are specific examples of inequities in the school system, but they require specific responses; not this general approach that leaves him in a position where two and a half to three years from now, when his term is over and the mayor's term is over, we're not going to see anything from this approach.
Seth Barron: Yeah. To be fair, I don't think most people think of the United Federation of Teachers as being a hotbed of Klan sympathy or white supremacy. It's a pretty liberal organization.
Ray Domanico: Absolutely. The schools in the City of New York, the nation's largest school system, have been predominantly black and Latino for decades. This goes back to the 1970s. I don't think it's the type of school system that will be attractive to people with racist tendencies. I think there are an awful lot of people— the vast majority of people who work in the school system, whether they are black or Latino themselves, or white— who are dedicated to improving conditions for black and Latino youngsters.
Seth Barron: Now, a major initiative of the mayor and the chancellor has been to desegregate middle schools in a number of New York City districts. How does this feature in their plans to improve the schools and what does this have to do with the implicit bias training? Do you see this as a positive step?
Ray Domanico: I think in specific cases it might be called for. I did a report earlier this year for the Manhattan Institute, which looked at the middle school program. But what I pointed out in that report and remains true is that this is not going to be the route to improving middle school education for the vast majority of black and Latino youngsters. There are only a finite number of middle schools in the city that are majority white or majority white and Asian. So they're going to run out of runway pretty quickly on this approach and there are still going to be thousands upon thousands of black and Latino kids stuck in lower performing middle schools. They need to do something beyond this.
Seth Barron: I guess I get confused. Is the argument that these schools are better because there are more white kids in them or is it that the schools with the white kids attract more resources? What is the advantage, if you're a black or Latino parent, of having your kid go to a school that has more white children? Is there a proximity measure that improves education for minority kids?
Ray Domanico: I don't think the chancellor has been very explicit in explaining to us why this is an issue. The research itself is very complicated. There have been some studies which indicate that a mix of students in schools might lead to some benefit. But we're up against some pretty stark numbers in New York City. Over 40% of the New York City public school population is Hispanic and close to 30% is black. And there are more Asian students than whites in New York City; both of those groups come in around 15 to 16%. So if it were true that integration were a necessity to have good schools, we're going to run out of the white kids to move around. The other group of schools, though, that suggests that success can be attained without this approach would be the charter schools in New York City, which are doing better than the district-run public schools. There are close to 120,000 students in charter schools right now in New York City and the vast majority of them are black and Hispanic. These are schools of choice for families of color in the city who are seeking better alternatives. At the same time, there are private schools, particularly Catholic schools and other religious schools, that serve the black and Latino community. There are quite a few students enrolled there and those schools seem to be doing well.
Seth Barron: Well, what kind of changes, then, would you suggest that the chancellor make? What kind of actions should he take to improve education, improve schools for the vast middle.
Ray Domanico: What I would really like to see is for him to speak in very specific terms about where the areas are where the system is falling short, where the inequities are, and come up with specific solutions to those problems. Mayor de Blasio's predecessor, Mayor Bloomberg, for 12 years ran a very aggressive school improvement strategy, in which, under a number of chancellors, they identified low performing public schools in the city, they closed those schools down, and they created new opportunities for students— largely in black and Latino communities. Not all of those schools were charter schools. Charter schools experienced a tremendous growth under Mayor Bloomberg, but they had a parallel program where they allowed unionized public school educators to create new small schools, and many of those schools succeeded as well. This mayor and this chancellor completely dropped that whole approach. They're not supportive of the creation of new charter schools. Mayor de Blasio invested a tremendous amount of money in the Renewal Schools program, a failed attempt to fix schools that really should have been closed and replaced, as his predecessor did. And now Chancellor Carranza is getting us deeper into this hole by pursuing this intangible anti-bias training rather than being specific about where the problems are and how he's going to solve them.
Seth Barron: Well, critics of charter schools often say that charter schools take all the good students, all the students with parents who care about education, and essentially cherry-pick them, put them into these charter schools. They suck resources from the district schools while leaving the district schools with the hardest cases. Is that a fair characterization?
Ray Domanico: No, it's absolutely not fair. All of the research and information runs in the opposite direction. Charter schools admit students based on a lottery system. Academic research, very disciplined research, has shown that in New York City public schools in proximity to new and growing charter schools did not suffer because of the establishment of charter schools in certain communities. And at the broader level, I've documented in reports for the Manhattan Institute that at the same time, from 2000 to 2016, when charter school enrollment in the city was going from essentially 0 to close to 120,000, the public schools improved as well. The public schools improved; spending on the public schools, the traditional public schools, has gone up tremendously. So the notion that the growth in charter schools has somehow come at the expense of traditional district schools is simply not true.
Seth Barron: Well, some advocates argue that the problem with the district schools is that— you brought up funding— is that they're basically underfunded and that the state has dropped the ball on funding public schools. So if we were to bring the funding of city schools up to that of suburban jurisdictions, wouldn't that improve schooling for all of New York City's kids?
Ray Domanico: I've been studying the New York City Public School system for a long time, close to 40 years now. Spending has always gone up, and particularly under this mayor it has gone up dramatically. Most of that goes for increases in teacher salaries; personnel costs are the biggest costs of the school system. I wish it were true that simply spending more money would improve the schools. But what we've learned over time is the money has to be spent wisely and it has to be targeted, not these across-the-board increases.
Seth Barron: So it sounds like we're in a tough situation now because de Blasio has another two and a half to three years in his term and it doesn't sound like we're headed in the right direction. Is there a chance for meaningful change at this point?
Ray Domanico: The hope lies in the good people who work in the school system. There are many of them. I cannot argue that there is any evidence that schools have gotten demonstrably worse under Mayor de Blasio. The improvement that began under Mayor Bloomberg has continued. We'll see if that continues for the next two and a half years. But there are very good people working in the school system and they continue to do their job day in and day out, no matter what's going on at Tweed Courthouse or in City Hall.
Seth Barron: Well, that sounds like good news on some level. We'd like to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10Blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Ray, thank you for joining us.
Ray Domanico: Thank you so much.
Photo: Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School via Flickr